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Hurricane Charley

Votes cast proudly in storm-tossed terrain

By MARCUS FRANKLIN
Published September 1, 2004

PORT CHARLOTTE - For Peggy Kalaf, whose roof was battered by Hurricane Charley, voting Tuesday was as necessary to the rebuilding process as the packing supplies she was buying when she realized she needed to cast her ballot.

"We're rebuilding our community, and one of the first steps to rebuilding is selecting good leadership," Kalaf, 56, said as she finished voting.

"Unless you come to cast your ballot, you have no say in who's providing leadership.

"It's an interruption to a hectic, chaotic time but it's worth the interruption."

Charley left Charlotte and two other nearby counties, De Soto and Hardee, in precarious positions for Tuesday's primary, which took place less than three weeks after the Category 4 hurricane came ashore.

In Charlotte, the Aug. 13 storm damaged one-third of Charlotte County's 600 electronic voting machines, left the vast majority of its 80 precincts unusable or occupied by emergency crews, and reduced by half the number of willing poll workers.

Election officials opened 22 precincts, nine of them "super precincts" made up of as many as 11 precincts in Port Charlotte and Punta Gorda, cities among the hardest hit.

"It can't compare to anything," Judy Anderson, who has worked in the Charlotte Elections Office for 38 years - the last 16 as supervisor - said Tuesday of the primary. "I've never had anything this challenging since I've been in this office." Anderson is retiring after this year.

Other residents, however, chose instead to focus exclusively on the rebuilding of their lives.

"Are you voting?" Norm Stevens, a 72-year-old election day volunteer at the super precinct at the Community Life Center Church, asked an approaching man.

"Vote for us for disaster relief," George Farruggio, 46, responded. "That's the last thing on my mind," he said as he waved and headed to the American Red Cross disaster relief center at the other end of the church.

Farruggio later explained that he and his 9-year-old son lost their house and everything in it.

Others at the church, where Convoy of Hope, the Springfield, Mo., outreach arm of the Assemblies of God, was distributing its 65th semitrailer load of food, expressed more interest in reclaiming control of their lives as quickly as possible.

"I'm usually a voter," said Farruggio, who said he was a registered Republican.

"But to be honest with you, I don't care right now. My life's a mess."

Still, many others turned out for the primary, which generally draws fewer voters than the general elections. Final turnout numbers for Charlotte County were not available late Tuesday night.

Audrey Fischer's Punta Gorda Isles home needs a new roof and is still without telephone and cable lines. The hurricane also destroyed the church where the 77-year-old normally votes.

On Tuesday, Fischer traveled to cast her ballot at another church, one of the super precincts, where she said it was "very smooth and easy, five minutes beginning to end."

"I still want to have a say in what's going on," Fischer said as she left First United Methodist Church, where campaign signs competed for space with downed trees and other Charley-related debris. "If you don't vote, you'd be ruled by whomever."

For some, it was simply a matter that the county's ballot offerings lacked appeal. The contests included a Republican primary for sheriff to replace former Sheriff Bill Clement. In February, a jury convicted Clement of official misconduct, a third-degree felony. Clement's appeal is pending.

"I'm a Democrat," said Greg Larrison, 56, co-owner of Rainbow Florist, a downtown Punta Gorda shop damaged by the hurricane. Larrison was doing an inventory of damaged merchandise for his insurance company Tuesday afternoon. "It's not much to drag us out to the polls.

"I hadn't even thought about going down there" to vote. "I'd rather do this and get some money in my pocket."

Times researcher Kitty Bennett contributed to this report. Marcus Franklin can be reached at mfranklin@sptimes.com or 727 893-8488.

[Last modified September 1, 2004, 01:09:34]


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